“There’s No Normal to Get Back To”: The State of Higher Ed

"Maybe that’s one thing the pandemic has allowed—for us to be a bit more honest about our struggles."

As colleges and universities across the US attempt to get “back to normal” after nearly three years of challenges from the pandemic, what does life on the ground at these institutions look like? Public Books assembled a group of faculty and administrators from different types of institutions—elite universities, regional publics, and community colleges—to hear their perspectives on the state of higher education. While they shed light on the challenges that students, faculty, staff, and administrators are experiencing, they also speak to the tremendous resilience within higher education institutions today.

Rebecca Weaver is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, a community college inside of Georgia State University in Atlanta. She teaches their first-year writing course, has a four-five teaching load, and does pedagogy development. Annemarie Hamlin is the vice president for academic affairs at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Oregon. A former faculty member and then instructional dean, she also previously taught writing, as well as American literature and digital humanities. She works with a number of groups on campus focused directly on student success and student needs. Nate Bryant is the vice president for student success at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. He oversees enrollment management, student life, the Center for Academic Excellence, and marketing and communications.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is the moderator and the assistant director for digital learning at Georgetown University. She works with faculty at the intersection of technology and pedagogy, helping them be better teachers. She also teaches in the Learning, Design, and Technology master’s program.

Lee Skallerup Bessette (LSB): What we want to know, first, is how are faculty and staff doing right now at your institution? How is the 2022–2023 academic year going?


Nate Bryant (NB): There’s a level of excitement as well as a level of anxiety. Many are happy to be back on campus, but there are also those who are a little anxious because there are so many unknowns with COVID-19. All alongside smiles and hugs and handshakes—there’s a real energy from coming back.


Annemarie Hamlin (AH): There’s a feeling of excitement from people who were longing to teach in person again. They are enjoying the moment fully. I’m not sensing as much anxiety this year, but I am sensing a lot of exhaustion. The pandemic also empowered faculty to say “no” more often as they are learning what their workload can and should be in relationship to student needs and institutional expectations.


Rebecca Weaver (RW): I would concur. And because of who our community college student population is, there might be a little more exhaustion than in other places. Our students weren’t getting access before the pandemic. We work so hard to keep the connections going with our students, more so during the pivot [to online instruction in spring 2020], and we don’t feel like that’s let up.

We’re starting to see students disappearing for weeks on end, and then coming back. And we have to have really hard conversations about their ability to catch up. But the implicit—or maybe explicit—contract or agreement between how our school supports our students and how individual teachers expect them to be supported before they get to the classroom feels like it’s been broken.


AH: During the pandemic, when we shifted to remote teaching, faculty were the one point of contact for so many of our students. Students weren’t seeing the various student services folks on campus they might normally see, and I think that contributed to faculty’s sense of being overwhelmed. They were taking on all of that work, plus their teaching.


LSB: What about staff? With students back on campus, there is increased demand for support from academic staff—counseling staff, advising staff, various infrastructures. As you’ve said, a lot of students didn’t have easy access to them while remote.


NB: At Salem State, staff never really left, per se. Because of COVID-19, we found that students were big fans of accessing support services remotely. As we tried to meet students where they are, we found—and our data shows this—that the percentage of students who cancel appointments is now lower than before the pandemic because they can attend an advising session in their pajamas. But the staff, like the faculty, are struggling a little bit because we’re used to the traditional model of students coming to campus. We have to remind ourselves, Don’t think about how it was when you were going to college. Let’s make sure we focus on how students today want to access our services.


AH: I’m sensing mostly enthusiasm among staff about interactions with students. My colleagues in student services, in their various roles—advising first-year experience, orientation, etc.—are really feeling that energy of being in the same place with students again. There’s also a bigger picture of union negotiations with bargaining units that’s adding a little tension for staff, but that’s very much separate from their interactions with students.

LSB: Does this academic year feel different from previous ones? If so, how is that impacting your work, student experience, and faculty?


RW: We’re in Georgia, where there was a push to get everybody back to campus in the fall of 2021—to get “back to normal.” A number of us have felt like there’s no normal to get back to—that the “normal” being striven for was pretty bad for our students in a lot of ways. For example, we have a “15 to Finish” philosophy, i.e., students are encouraged to take 15 credits per semester. In the right circumstances, students do better if they’re taking more credits. But we’ve also gotten rid of our English for Multilingual Learners program and most of our support classes, so now we have students who are struggling with English. We have students who are first-generation college students and students who are working not just part-time but full-time—and they are being urged to take 15 credits a semester. They’re not being told they can take 12 credits and still get financial aid in their 15-minute advising meetings. They’re being pushed to take 15, and it’s really destructive.

In the rush to “get back to normal,” we haven’t received the support needed for what “normal” might actually mean.


NB: We have really been mindful of asking students what they want. We’re looking closely at schedules for staffing. We’re thinking of remote work—for student-success staff to be on campus for three days and work from home for two days. But morale at our institution has been a little low. We’re underresourced, we’re understaffed. In a way, allowing staff to work remotely has actually increased their morale. But we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that there will be students on campus, so we ensure there’s always someone on campus in every office.


AH: Echoing Nate, I agree that a difference this year is the amount of creativity in thinking about how we meet student needs. It’s been fun to see that we have new tools in our toolbox thanks to Zoom and remote work. I was talking to a colleague the other day who is going to be a new father halfway through term, and it was exciting to think about how we can harness the power of in-person and remote to make it possible for him to go back to where his family is and still do his job. It’s great to see the possibilities of these creative options.

Like Salem State, our advising offices are doing a lot more remote advising—we’re about 50/50. And I’m hearing from faculty that student readiness and student maturity is at an all-time low, attributing that to students going to school remotely for as long as 18 months. They feel like students aren’t quite ready to handle the college classroom. That may have been the case to some extent prior to the pandemic, but it’s really being seen and registered and probably adds to the level of exhaustion.


LSB: We see what you’re talking about at Georgetown, where faculty are saying that students are less prepared, and more fragile too. We’re going to keep seeing that as we’re moving through this—it’s not something we’re going to outgrow. We’re going to keep seeing students coming in at a different level of preparedness.


RW: We have a lot of student services offices here at Georgia State University, and the dean’s office has an easy-to-use website to refer a student. If any student has any kind of issue, it’s refer, refer, refer. But that’s not sustainable. The larger, infrastructural conversation about what students need right now and how to enact that isn’t happening at a meta level. I don’t know where the “support” is, other than these individual referrals—and the counselors and advisors are understaffed.

LSB: What are you noticing in terms of needs and concerns students have? Rebecca, you mentioned that students are taking too many courses. We know students are struggling with food insecurity, housing insecurity, the cost of childcare. Are [the issues] just more visible now because we’re paying attention?


AH: Those things you named, Lee, are more visible—in part because we are looking for them more and partly because students are more willing to speak about them. In the past, the institution as the ivory tower was a place where it was intimidating for students to say, “I am really struggling.” Maybe that’s one thing the pandemic has allowed—for us to be a bit more honest about our struggles. I know faculty and staff were honest about their struggles, and maybe that allowed students to be more open. Of course, there’s also high gas prices—our institutions are primarily commuter institutions—plus inflation in all kinds of areas.


NB: Yes, we’re noticing more, for sure, that students are willing to disclose. The one thing we didn’t see coming—and perhaps should have—is that the number of requests by students for single rooms is off the charts. We’ve never had single rooms, prior to the pandemic. It’s a challenge—a big part of college is meeting folks who may be different from you and learning from that. But parents and students are asking, so we have to try to meet students where they are. Students’ willingness to disclose is ultimately a good thing because it helps us anticipate what we need to provide for services.


RW: A number of us—and this is all the way down from the top—have worked really hard to tell our students, “We see you.” Some of us have been open about our own experiences struggling as students. And students have heard the message.


NB: I want to drive home the point about food and housing insecurity again. We know it was happening pre-COVID, but there was stigma. We’ve gone from a food closet to a food pantry to a room, and now to partnering with a local food pantry. With less of the stigma, students are accessing the resources. If you’re hungry, how can you focus on your academics? You can’t.


LSB: Or, if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep—if you’re going to sleep in a bed or on a couch or in a car. The blinders have been removed. We were forced to see that the idea that the classroom is the great equalizer just isn’t true. Ten years ago, when I was teaching at Morehead State University, I had students reluctantly disclosing that they didn’t have anywhere else to sleep or that they were couch surfing or camping—or ate only one meal a day. These issues were already there, but now they are very much at the forefront.


NB: And now we’re looking at plans for addressing this. Traditional colleges close at breaks—Thanksgiving, winter, summer. But we have students who need to be on our campus 12 months because of housing or food insecurity. We’ve provided housing. Now we have to look at meal plans, which are traditionally nine months. It was happening 10 years ago but now it’s actually part of our planning as an institution.

LSB: I’m curious about what message you’d like the higher-education community and the public at large to know about the work happening at our universities and the work you’d like to see happen in the future.


RW: Something that pleasantly surprised me has been the meteoric rise in interest from faculty in teaching professional development. I’ve been writing and talking about teaching for a long time, and suddenly my colleagues are asking me questions I always wished they would ask. About basic needs, compassion, and pedagogical practices rooted in education-based education, not compliance-based education.


AH: I’m seeing instructors with a renewed energy for thinking about pedagogy, too. As a whole, we need to attend to what it means to teach these days, which is different from what it meant 5 years ago or 10 years ago. I hope that graduate programs are thinking about training teachers for what teaching means now. I also want to point out that we’re much more attentive to the needs of rural students who may not have technology access in the ways that urban students do. We have developed extensive and growing technology-lending programs for laptops and hotspots. We’ve increased various supports for food and basic supplies, and we are looking for ways to put more money in our students’ pockets, both for tuition and basic needs through grants related to workforce development. I’m really proud of our commitment to that.


Pedagogy of the Depressed

By Christopher Schaberg

NB: I would add that we have done a better job of coordinated care. We’ve always had a case management system but we’re now taking it a step further, with point persons for triage of students’ needs—whether it’s counseling and health services, financial aid, advising. We’re doing a better job of working in unison to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our students. When we are able to identify students’ needs early in the process, we’re able to help them, with the hopes that they will be able to continue in their degree program.

We’re also looking at how small amounts of money can help students persevere. So we’ve started giving out completion grants, thanks to a funder who wanted to help students graduate. We saw that there was a spike in the number of seniors leaving, so close to the finish line—for many it was a matter of a couple hundred dollars to purchase books or fix their car.  The program’s effect was instantaneous. The number of students being retained was off the charts. And it works so well that the state of Massachusetts took notice and started a statewide basic fund. We’re now bringing this program to juniors at risk of leaving and tapping into other funding sources.


LSB: And now because of COVID, students who really needed that and might not have asked for it are more willing to.

Thank you to all of you for this fabulous conversation and for sharing your insights on the state of higher education institutions and our faculty, staff, and students.


This article was commissioned by Roopika Risamicon

Featured-image photograph by Oleksandr Baiev / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)